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Favorite science fiction from the last five years

I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my favorite SF from the last few years. These are not necessarily books published in the last five years, but ones that I’ve read in that time span. (I feel like I’ve read less SF this year than normal, but I know there are also several I haven’t gotten around to yet.)

ancillary mercyscorpion rulesconservation of shadows

Ambassador by William Alexander: I read Ambassador for the Cybils back in 2014 and loved it. It’s nice to have an SF book about a Latino boy, and Alexander does a great job of incorporating Gabe’s identity and culture into the story. The concept that drives the book works well as a way to combine kids and politics.

Quicksilver and Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson: This is a really fascinating SF duology from one of my favorite authors. I’m never sure what to say about these books, because they have some great twists I don’t want to spoil. But I loved the main characters a lot, and I enjoy the way they have an SF plot with kind of a fantasy sensibility–if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: I read this YA for the Cybils last year, and it’s really stuck with me. Less the plot (I just had to Google because I couldn’t remember) and more the characters and worldbuilding Bao was doing. I really liked Phaet, and I felt like her outlook on life is one we don’t get very often in YA.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book. THIS BOOK. It’s terrifying and tense and smart and every time I drink apple cider, I wince. Terrible things happen in it, and yet I also cried because it’s so hopeful and affirming. I can’t say how much I love Greta, and Xie, and all the Children of Peace.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold:  I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in its entirety, as I’ve documented here many times, but I was really fascinated by some of the turns and choices she made in the latest installment. It was also really lovely to have another story from Cordelia’s point of view.

The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you’ll know that I’ve been glomping my way through Cherryh’s massive series. I love the way she writes the atevi and the political and social customs and issues that arise. While I occasionally quibble with the depiction of the human women, overall the characters are really engaging and wonderful as well.

Promised Land by Cynthia DeFelice and Connie Willis: This is a lighter SF romance, which has turned out to be one of my comfort reads. It’s kind of a space western, but in a very different vein than Firefly.

Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry: A fun middle-grade space adventure about a family of space privateers. Tycho and his siblings have to compete to win the captain’s seat, but there are also bigger contests going on. Fry has written a number of Star Wars chapter books, and he clearly knows what he’s doing.

And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst: I love Höst’s books, and this was the first one I read. It’s an intimate story, almost quiet, even though it’s about a terrifying world-wide event. Rather than a sweeping epic, Höst keeps the scale on a human level, and makes me care so much about Madeleine and her friends and the outcome of their story.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: I basically always want to be reading this trilogy; Leckie writes ambitiously about identity, loyalty, families, and imperialism. She also pulls it off, mostly because of her rich characters and worldbuilding which also give an emotional core to the big concepts she’s engaging with.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: I was really impressed by this short story collection, which features so many fascinating and strange worlds, as well as some really striking characters. The prose itself is also beautiful, even when the subject matter is not. I can’t wait till I get a chance to read Nine Fox Gambit.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it turns out that near-future socio-political thrillers are very much my thing when Valentine is writing them. Persona is smart and sleek and tense. If UN + red carpet + spies sounds intriguing, this book is probably for you.

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October 2014 round-up

Books I’ve already talked about
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud
Deceiver by C.J. Cherryh
Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn Dolamore
Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain by Hilary McKay
Perfect Scoundrels by Ally Carter
Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve
Grave Images by Jenny Goebel
Winterfrost by Michelle Houts
Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Almost Super by Marion Jensen
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold: This is turning into a comfort read for me–the characters I love, with a less angsty storyline than, say, Mirror Dance. Plus, it contains one of my favorite moments in the whole series in the sinking of ImpSec HQ.

Other books
Tempting Danger by Eileen Wilks: I’m not a big urban fantasy reader, but I’d heard this one recommended a few ties so I tried it. I liked it, but it never fully engaged me and I found the semi-forced romance a bit off-putting (though handled MUCH better than it could have been). Readers of this series, does it get better? At the moment I feel like I’ll probably try the second book at some point, but am not in a hurry to do so.

Betrayer by C.J. Cherryh: Honestly, at this point I can’t remember which Foreigner books are which. Googled plot summaries tell me that it’s the one with the kidnapping. Right. I’ve liked this trilogy quite a bit–especially the addition of Cajeiri’s narration. It also has a slightly more intimate focus than many of the other books, focusing as it does on Bren’s role as Lord of Najida.

Caszandra by Andrea K Host: An extremely satisfying conclusion to the trilogy! I was a bit worried that Host wouldn’t manage to draw all of her threads together, but I think she pulled it off. While I would love to know more about what happens in the future, it’s also a nice place to leave the characters. Except that we don’t quite, because there’s the…

Gratuitous Epilogue by Andrea K Host: Really for people who like to know Exactly What Happened to all the characters (those of us who once found the ending of Jo’s Boys satisfying) but nicely written for all that. I didn’t realize that it’s almost a complete book on its own–more novella than short story–but I’m not complaining about this.

Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Host: Several people said they didn’t like this one as much as Host’s other books, but I quite enjoyed it! I like creepy fairies, and also morally or perhaps politically ambiguous characters. (Yes, Aristide is my favorite.) Host’s theme of “young woman thrust into difficult circumstances” is just as present as ever.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: I was worried about this one, but I think it’s just as good, though quite different in scope, as the first book. I have quite a bit more to say about it, actually, which I’ll hopefully get up soon.

Bones of the Fair by Andrea K Host: Definitely better than Champion of the Rose, imo. But this is mostly due to the fact that Aristide was the most interesting character to me in the first book, and I really liked Gentian, and the conflict between them. The ending did feel a tad anticlimactic, but that is my only complaint.

Monstrous Affections ed. by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant: I was mostly excited about this one because of Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Wings in the Morning” (I wondered if it would work for people who have not been avidly following Turn of the Story, but I saw at least one review that said it did). And it was so satisfying and I grinned. This was overall a strong short story collection–not all of the stories worked equally well, but there were some really great ones (I liked Nalo Hopkinson’s and M.T. Anderson’s especially).

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon: Part of my project to familiarize myself with J FIC. This is one where I can see the appeal but don’t necessarily feel the need to read any more of the books.

A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly: First Benjamin January mystery. It’s moody, atmospheric, somewhat depressing in a certain way. Certainly well written, and I liked it enough to go on to the next. However, the solution to that one was quite upsetting to me, and I’m not sure whether to continue. People who’ve read more of them: is there anything as awful in the later books?

Other posts
Libraries and Life Preservers
Made and Making
Character-driven SF

TV & movies
Parks & Rec season 6: I saw this had gone up on Netflix, and I was sick, so I glommed through a fair bit of it. I’ll really miss this show when it’s gone; I find the characters so delightful at this point. Not all the episodes are perfect, but it’s a good example of comedic storytelling that doesn’t feel like I’m getting punched in the face.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day: I was sick and I wanted to watch I Capture The Castle (Romola Garai!) but it’s not on Netflix anymore, apparently. So I watched this instead, which worked for being sick and was moderately entertaining (Lee Pace’s accent is unintentionally hilarious) but I have never liked Ciaran Hinds and I find him as a romantic hero very improbable. One to enjoy but not linger on, or the charm goes away.

I could swear I watched other stuff, but I honestly don’t remember what so there we are.

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Recent reading: Non-Cybils edition

I decided that during this Cybils season, I will try to read all Cybils books all the time during the week and then let myself read other stuff on the weekends. We’ll see how that works. At any rate, here’s what I read this weekend:

Deceiver by CJ Cherryh: I was engaged by this, because Cherryh, and then I hit a certain point and I was reading frantically and stayed up way too late because I had to know what happened. Which is to say, this is one of the more gripping installments at this end of the series.

Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn Dolamore: Historical fantasy set in a city based on Weimar Berlin. I liked this one quite a bit, although I never completely bought the romance. But it’s an unusual and intriguing setting and Dolamore is very good at little bits of description that really set the scene.

Lulu and the Hedghog in the Rain by Hilary McKay: I’ve been going on about how wonderful Hilary McKay is, and how wonderful her Lulu books in particular are. But they really make me quite happy! I enjoyed the neighbors in this one, and Lulu’s absolute conviction that everyone should love animals as much as she does.

Perfect Scoundrels
by Ally Carter: I’ve been meaning to read this one since it first came out and actually had it checked out at one point. I did enjoy it, but found myself a little less invested in Kat’s adventures. Is it the book? Too much distance from the last story? Not sure.

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Recent Reading: Fantasy and science fiction

story of owenThe Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston: I really enjoyed this one; it’s best for the kind of reader who likes books that take their time, with plenty of attention to details of world and character. It’s fresh, unexpectedly funny, and a bit heart-wrenching. I very much liked how Johnston resists the easy and cliched in favor of a more interesting take on dragon, relationships, and friends. Plus, there’s a Canadian setting, and what I swear is a Doctor Who joke.

destroyerDestroyer by C.J. Cherryh: Reading the cover copy for this one stressed me out–no joke! And the next one looks EVEN WORSE. As a reading experience, this one was a bit frustrating, because we were so close to getting some closure with the whole Barb thing–so close to seeing her as a real person, as opposed to Bren’s biased view of her. But it didn’t quite happen. Maybe it will? I am more hopeful than I was, anyway. And the political stuff and new understanding of the atevi world view is all really fascinating and well-done. I wonder, just as a question of process, if Cherryh understands more about the atevi than she lets on, or whether she writes herself into it.

wolf huntThe Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw: I’ve been thinking for a few years that someone really needs to write some YA retellings of the Lais of Marie de France. Well, there’s one out there, Wolfborn, as well as this adult book by Bradshaw, which could probably be a cross-over. Both are using the Bisclavret story, which is certainly one of the more dramatic ones. Bradshaw is, of course, a wonderful writer of historical fiction, and she deals well with the fantastic elements of the story (I’m sure the biology is iffy, but I don’t personally tend to notice these things). Eline is not at all sympathetic, but the main characters attempt to deal with her with sympathy and kindness. All in all, this isn’t one I loved, but I did appreciate it.

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Recent Reading: C.J. Cherryh and Gail Carson Levine

I just couldn’t keep up the J Fic only thing any longer, and ended up plowing through the second Bren Cameron trilogy in three nights, staying up way too late. I’m not intentionally spoiling things here, but I’m also not avoiding spoilers, so tread carefully.

Thoughts on specific books
precursorPrecursor by C.J. Cherryh: After the first trilogy, it’s nice to see Bren with some self-confidence. He still doesn’t know everything, he’s still blindsided by his allies as often as his enemies, but he’s more settled in his own authority, his own skin. Which for me, makes him a more compelling character. We get our first real taste of the ship culture, and how different it is from both Mospheira and the mainland. Cherryh does this difference in cultures thing very well.

defenderDefender by C.J. Cherryh: Ah, this is in my opinion the weakest of the Bren Cameron books that I’ve read. The tension seems ratcheted down; I never really doubted the outcome. I do like seeing Jase stepping up, since in some ways his arc in this trilogy echoes Bren’s in the previous books.

explorerExplorer by C.J. Cherryh: This book contains an interesting broadening of Cherryh’s usual themes–the complex interaction between alien & human societies and government. At the end, I can’t help but wonder if the Pilot’s Guild become understood as the atevi, kyo, and ship humans have, by interaction with particular individuals. Or, because of their isolationism, will they be the true aliens in the middle of this far-reaching alliance?

Thoughts about the trilogy overall
I noticed Bren starting to think in atevi terms first, perhaps mirroring a similar response in readers. That is, I noticed myself registering numbers, on a very low level, but I was definitely noticing the structure of the sentences. You can feel the tension in Tabini’s actions at beginning of Precursor and his choice to speak between the second and third bells. This is some fine writing.

I do sigh a little about the portrayal of ordinary women. I like Jago and Illisidi a great deal, and especially perhaps the different ways in which they wield power. There are also several competent experts, from Gin Kroger to Sabin. These tend to be older, which makes logical sense in terms of their experience and is nice to see in a universe that’s otherwise very young. But–but, Bren’s mother and Barb are both viewed with skepticism, distance; an unkindness that no one else gets. For what? Because they inconvenience him? I don’t have an answer for this, but given what’s happened so far I’m not sure I’ll get an answer that’s satisfying to me. I’m not accusing, or pointing any fingers, but it’s enough of a pattern that I noticed it.

Of course, the point of view in these books is SO limited it might as well be first person, so we are getting them filtered solely through Bren. But we are led throughout–in basically everything else–to trust Bren. We feel his reactions, his emotions. It’s certainly understandable that he has a weak point, but why does it have to involve sneering at women who put their whole selves into raising children?

I wondered at one point if Bren’s full name is Brendan, for St. Brendan the Voyager. It would seem very fitting in these books.

Now for something completely different
princess talesThe Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine: Levine does fun things with fairy tales, but these shorter stories are no Ella Enchanted. They use the structure of traditional stories and subvert them a bit, but never quite enough–at least for me. I especially found the resolution of the first story, a retelling of “Toads and Diamonds” to be frustrating. Seriously? I’m supposed to accept this as okay? “Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep” was probably my favorite of the three, although my adult brain was muttering darkly about How Child Development Works and The Necessity of Sleep to Proper Functioning.

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Recent Reading: 2-21-14

And-All-the-StarsAnd All the Stars by Andrea K Host: Several blogging friends have been praising Host’s books for a few years now and I finally got around to reading one. And All the Stars is marvelous–diverse, thoughtful sci-fi, which takes a somewhat improbable scenario and makes it real and human.

The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw: Historical fiction about Justinian and Theodora, with the focus on a probably-not-real son of Theodora’s. I liked the way Bradshaw weaves in the court history and politics while also keeping a very human and down-to-earth focus on John and his struggles.

Imperial Purple by Gillian Bradshaw: There’s a similar setting and ethos to this one, which looks at the end of Theodosius II’s reign. I found that having the main characters being regular people caught up in larger events gave me more of a sense of everyday lives, as well as being a perspective you don’t always see in historical fiction.

Pride of ChanurThe Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh: Rachel Neumeier told me to read the Chanur books, so I did. 🙂 I loved the way Cherryh keeps the narrative entirely from Pyanfar’s point-of-view, making it far more effective than splitting the story between characters. Perhaps because of that, I did feel a slight distance from the characters, more so than with the Foreigner books. Nevertheless, I am definitely invested enough to read the rest!

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Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh

rusalkaSo I finished Rusalka all in one sitting Monday night, partly because I was afraid that if I stopped reading, I wouldn’t start again. Rachel Neumeier commented a few days ago that Rusalka was the only CJC book she really didn’t like, and yeah. Not my favorite of hers by far.

Cherryh usually walks a thin line between a stylistic detachment from her characters and completely disengagement. It’s a weird sort of effect even at its best–the only other author I can remember who uses it is Ursula Le Guin in the Earthsea series–but usually it works pretty well. Partly, I think, because it counterbalances the effect of what otherwise would be a fairly melodramatic plot. Think of Foreigner retold without that slight distance, for example.

But in Rusalka, it goes one step too far, at least for me. One wants Sasha and Pyetr to succeed, but there’s not enough to hold onto. No one’s motives are clear, and everyone comes across as overly passive. I think this may be at least partly because of the way Cherryh switches pov–frustratingly–as soon as a character is about to learn or do something. For instance, Uulamets teaches Sasha things, but we only hear about this secondhand from Pyetr and from Sasha in retrospect.

Uulamets is a complete enigma throughout the book, a figure whose motives are opaque and, it seems, constantly shifting without any insight as to why. Evesha is literally an absent, unobtainable girl, which I might not mind in some circumstances but in this case–coupled with the other characters–it was just too much.

Contrast all of this with Bren Cameron, protagonist of the Foreigner series, who is often confused, mislead, and without direct agency, but who nonetheless acts, or at least tries to act. All of Cherryh’s books that I’ve read are quite like the middle of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory (as Jo Walton memorably said), going on forever. But usually the reader is invested enough in the characters for some almost indefinable reason that it doesn’t matter.

I don’t know–Cherryh does a nice job with the Russian-inspired setting, at least to my somewhat limited knowledge. I especially like the sense of vastness, which shows up in a lot of 19th century Russian art–the land going on forever. And she weaves in a lot of Russian mythology (no firebirds though, alas) in a way that I found convincing and organic. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll finish the trilogy–on the one hand, I like the 2nd and 3rd Foreigner books better than the first, and Rusalka did in some ways read as one long set-up. On the other, do I want to be continually frustrated and annoyed by the characters? I don’t know. I’ll probably try the second, but also not feel bad if I DNF it. Life is too short, and Cherryh is too prolific.